LESSONS FROM UX NIGHT SCHOOL: Design/Research, Community, and Creative Inquiry

Last week, I had the pleasure of giving this talk at Reed College's Evidence to Scholarship: Transforming Undergraduate Student Research in the Digital Age conference. It was lovely to meet and chat with librarians, teaching faculty, and administrators from undergraduate institutions, and reconnect with some of the challenges of "traditional" higher ed. Here are my slides, and here's the text of my talk. 

Hi! Thank you for having me today! It’s a real pleasure to be here, to hear about the work that you’re doing at your colleges and institutions, and to talk with this diverse and thoughtful group of folks about how we’re all working on building knowledge in collaborative ways. I’m going to switch gears a bit, talk about what I’ve been working on with UX Night School and share some insights into how we can build learning opportunities that serve us over the course of our lifetimes, and careers.

So, first I’m going to quickly introduce myself, and where I’m coming from. Then I’ll talk about what we’ve done at UX Night School, share some of the things we’ve learned, then thank you again and let you have happy hour.


  Amelia's Career So Far, as a game of Chutes and Ladders

Amelia's Career So Far, as a game of Chutes and Ladders


As I’ll discuss, I’ve had an interesting career trajectory, as a result of having lots of interests and well, as a result of life. I’ve had to think a lot about career development, and in doing this work, I’ve been lucky to talk to lots of different folks about careers as well. And what I’ve learned from this is that we need more complex models and metaphors. My friend Snowden Becker says that we build careers “like a french braid”, pulling in strands from our past experiences. One of my students characterized his career progress as “Chutes and Ladders”.

The chutes and ladders of my own education and career show this too. I grew up in Dallas during the 80’s hardware boom, and was raised by radical catholic school teachers who owned SEVERAL copies of Pedagogy of the Oppressed - both of these factors shaped my career in technology and education far more than I’d have anticipated- I actually think I was rebelling by going to library school right after college.

At the age of 24, I got my first job as a special collections librarian, where, I was also told that I needed to “do the technology” for my department. I was so angry at the state of the technology products available in the mid-2000s, so I went back for my PhD at UW in specializing in human-computer interaction and vowing to “Make it better”. (ha ha)

While in grad school, I taught in the classroom, worked on research grants, and also started freelancing as a UX designer and design researcher - using my academic training in industry! I had a kid when I was ABD, moved to Portland, and have been working full-time consulting since. And in the fall of 2016, after 5 years away from universities, but getting lots of requests for mentorship, with “How do I learn how to do this?”-  I started a school.

Since the fall of 2016, UX Night School has had 5 cohorts of participants go through our 4-part workshop series. The folks we’ve had are mainly working professionals, developers and designers, but they’ve also come from education, libraries, non-profits. We’ve also had folks who were doing major pivots in their careers: one student in Fall had worked in a grocery store for the past 10 years.



With the help of the workshop participants, I wanted to practice what I preached: doing iterative Instructional Design, inspired by the paradigms of Community Based Participatory Research + Creative Inquiry. What could we learn by doing, then doing slightly differently? What could we learn by sharing? 


Working with big tech companies, I knew that there was lots to learn from small businesses, from local institutions. Community Based Participatory Research proposes "No parachuting", meaning researchers and designers can't enter communities, gather data, and then GTFO, only to let solutions trickle down to the people who so graciously shared their experiences with us. I wanted to find new ways to engage with the community, and to build meaningful, reciprocal partnerships.


Our main offering is what we call the Intro Series : four workshops covering  Project Planning,  User Research, Iterative Prototyping, Testing  and Service Design. We've offered the workshops quarterly since Fall 2016, and sold out each time! What's more, we've attracted a remarkably diverse group of participants, and worked with a wide range of community resources. 


Coming from higher ed, I wanted to figure out ways that we could work with community organizations and institutions. Rather than pricing the workshops like fancy corporate training, we sought to be competitive with community college. We've worked with our local university, Portland State, to allow participants to be eligible for continuing education or graduate credit . 

So what did we learn?

1. Our desire for knowledge and desire for community are the same. 

We use a cohort model for our workshops, and it's been extremely valuable. As I've observed, as we  want to learn new things, we also want to have new places, new groups to learn in. Student feedback points to this, and it's incredibly gratifying as a teacher to help put this into motion. 

2. Knowledge-building of any sort requires PRACTICE.

As the great philosopher Allen Iverson says, "We talkin' bout practice." Human-centered design isn't a widget, it's a model of doing. We teach students how to interview users, to run usability tests, to design for accessibility. But more than that, we teach a practice, a way to work differently.

3. Learn by doing first, then direct inquiry.

After teaching undergrads at UW, I was determined to skip all of the things that felt like a chore for both the students and teacher:  At first, I did not want to lecture at students, assign readings, or do any of the traditional classroom stuff. Then, to my surprise and delight, they asked for it. The learn-by-doing model is great, but folks often want to continue on the path by taking directed inquiry.

4. Professional education GETS NO RESPECT, but it’s more necessary now than ever.

I knew this before, but now, let me proclaim this. Professional education can be meaningful. Professional education can be rigorous. But it cannot be an afterthought. Let’s rethink how professional education fits into colleges, both in the undergraduate experience and throughout folks’ lives.

5. All learning requires infrastructure. Traditional + non-traditional institutions: Let’s COLLABORATE!

Starting a school means DOING ALL THE JOBS. In the past year of doing so many jobs, I know there is a better way to enable new kinds of professional education, and that colleges can benefit from collaborating.

SO, IN CLOSING, Let’s collaborate!